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Parking in S.F. Gets More Tense

A city memo about increasing tickets makes the news and residents are furious. Mayor says the memo is a phony.

May 19, 2003|Marcelo Rodriguez | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Donny Alonzo has one of this compact city's more difficult jobs. He's a parking control officer in a town where parking is scarce and where ticketed drivers often vent on the one writing the citations.

This week, his work got a little harder. A leaked memo that made local front-page news detailed a new parking enforcement blitz in the city, ordering supervisors in the San Francisco Department of Parking and Traffic to produce 40,000 additional parking citations over a 45-day period.

The ensuing brouhaha, in typical San Francisco fashion, pitted City Hall against the city's principal newspaper and enraged residents burdened with a parking summons rate that produces more than seven tickets per household each year.

"Yeah, it's been definitely more tense," Alonzo said as he wrote up a Toyota Celica convertible that had overstayed its welcome in the city's North Beach neighborhood. "A lot of people are mad, and a lot more are yelling at us."

But it isn't just Alonzo and his colleagues who are bearing the brunt of public anger. Fuming San Francisco residents took to the phones in full force last week, calling talk radio stations, parking enforcement officials and Mayor Willie Brown's office.

By the next day, damage control was in full swing. In a TV news report, Brown angrily denied that the city was beefing up its parking enforcement efforts with new ticket quotas and called the memo a phony. He even compared the San Francisco Chronicle columnists who broke the story with a New York Times reporter recently disgraced for fabricating stories.

According to the May 12 story by columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross, a parking enforcement official told his staff that a lot more tickets had to be written because the city is facing "tough economic times" and the number of citations this year is falling far short of projections. The 8% drop in tickets represents a loss of $5.5 million to San Francisco, which is facing a $350-million budget shortfall.

"They overspend and then try to make up for it by writing more tickets," said a man who found a ticket on his Honda Civic, which was parked downtown. "The meter expired five minutes ago. What am I supposed to do? There's no parking lot anywhere near here. This is my second ticket this week."

On weekdays, the city's population of 780,000 bulges to about 1.6 million, including commuters, most of whom work downtown. Parking officials say there are about 320,000 on-street spots in all of San Francisco and about 58,000 off-street spaces downtown. It doesn't take a city planner to see there's a problem.

But city planners don't see it as a problem. The lack of parking downtown is largely by design, with the San Francisco General Plan leaning toward mass transit and other modes of transportation, such as bicycles.

"Drivers in this city are frustrated because they feel everyone's out to get them," said Diana Hammons, a Department of Parking and Traffic spokeswoman. "The bicyclists are out to get them." San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency riders "are out to get them. They feel vilified."

More than 2.4 million parking citations were written in San Francisco last year -- more than seven tickets for every household. By comparison, in Los Angeles, a city with roughly five times the population, 2.9 million parking citations were issued last year, according to the city's Department of Transportation. That's a little more than two per household.

In June, the cost of parking violations in San Francisco will be raised by $10. Drivers who return to expired meters downtown could find themselves with $40 tags on their windshields. Needless to say, the idea of escalating enforcement efforts doesn't sit well with many.

Hammons said the leaked memo "does not represent departmental policy." So why was it written? "There was a meeting where there was talk of sending supervisors out to write tickets," she said. "Someone was writing notes, interpreted the meeting the way they saw it, did some math on their own, and that math appeared on the minutes. In this town, the city workers have the reporters on speed dial."

Hammons confirmed that the memo was genuine but that "it is just plain wrong." Mayor Brown, however, was less forgiving and lashed out at the Chronicle.

"This story started with a phony memo prepared by somebody who may have very well attended a meeting where some matters were discussed, but it wasn't any kind of an official act, and my guess is that the reporter knew that," Brown told a KTVU-TV news reporter.

Columnist Matier, who said he received "a very large number of e-mails and telephone calls" from angry motorists, said there's "nothing phony" about the story. "The minutes came on official letterhead, and their content was confirmed by Parking and Traffic," Matier said. "Parking is the hot-button issue in San Francisco, so I can see why the mayor may be angry. But we didn't make this stuff up."

Hammons said parking citations in San Francisco are down this year as a result of a number of factors, including a shaky economy that has brought soaring office vacancy rates.

Also this year, the city switched to modernized parking meters over a nine-month period. During the exchange, some spaces were left for a while without meters. And, to control traffic during large antiwar protests in March and April, dozens of parking control officers were pulled from ticketing to other duties.

"We expect that there will be more tickets written now," Hammons said. "But there are no quotas."

Justin, the ticketed Honda Civic driver, isn't buying it. "They can call it whatever they want," he said.

Alonzo has some advice for Justin and other frustrated drivers in San Francisco. When it comes to parking, "this city is just like New York," Alonzo said. "But New Yorkers are smarter. They just don't drive."

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